poem index

Poetic Contest: From A Poet's Glossary

Written by

Edward Hirsch

Contributor Page


March 17, 2015


Poetic Terms/Forms
Printer-friendly version

poetic contest: The poetic contest, a verbal duel, is common worldwide. It has been documented in a large number of different poetries as a highly stylized form of male aggression, a model of ritual combat, an agonistic channel, a steam valve, a kind of release through abuse. The poetic contest may be universal because it provides a socially acceptable form of rivalry and battle. It is a forum for insults with a built-in release valve—humor and exaggeration. It also provides a competitive venue for those who are not physically strong but enterprising, intelligent, and quick-witted.

The poetic contest has an ancient origin. There are instances, for example, in Aristophanes’s plays The Clouds (423 BCE) and The Frogs (405 BCE), where he depicts Aeschylus competing against Euripides (after Sophocles declines to compete) and winning the exclusive right as the greatest tragedian to return to life from the underworld. The poetic contest—two speakers going back and forth against each other—played a crucial role in the development of drama, which is driven by agon. The Greek rhapsodes contended for prizes at religious festivals. Indeed, the Greeks created contests out of nearly every form of poetry, from wine songs to high tragedy. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, usually dated to the seventh century BCE, depicts competitive singing, which is also mentioned in the Hymns to Aphrodite (from the same period). Hesiod claimed that he won a prize for performing a song at the funeral games for Amphidamas in Euboea. Eris, “competition” or “strife,” is a god, Hesiod says, and wealth increases when “potter strives against potter, beggar against beggar, and singer against singer” (Works and Days, eighth century BCE). Singing competitions in local peasant communities stand behind the literary pastoral, and there are just such contests of wit in the idylls of Theocritus and the eclogues of Virgil (amoebean verses, “responsive verses”). In antiquity, the memorization of poetry was frequently turned into a contest, a sort of philological parlor game, to enliven festive gatherings. The sophist Athenaeus (ca. 220) gives a description in “Scholars at a Banquet”:

Clearchus of Soli, a man of the school of Aristotle, also tells us how the ancients went about this. One recited a verse, and another had to go on with the next. One quoted a sentence, and a sentence from some other poet expressing the same idea had to be produced. Verses of such and such a number of syllables were demanded, or the leaders of the Greeks and of the Trojans had to be enumerated, or cities in Asia and Europe beginning with the same letter to be named in turn. They had to remember lines of Homer which begin and end with the same letter, or the first and last syllable taken together must yield a name or an implement or a food. The winner gained a garland, but anyone who blundered had brine poured into his drink and had to drain the whole cup at a draught.

Walter Ong suggests, “In pre-romantic, rhetorical culture, the poet is essentially a contestant.” The poetic contest is a way of asserting, establishing, and proving selfhood.

The first professional competition for Welsh bards, an eisteddfod, or “session,” was held in the twelfth century. The Sängerkrieg (minstrel’s contest) or Wartburkrieg (Wartburg contest) was a legendary competition among the German Minnesänger at Thuringia in 1207. The French débat, which was especially popular in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, sets up a contest, a quarrel or debate. The tenson (tenzone, tencon) was a type of debate poem developed by the troubadours in the twelfth century. From the twelfth to the seventeenth century, musical and literary societies in northern France, which were called puys, competed against each other in poetic contests. One of the heirs of the French debate poem is the Brazilian improvised verse dialogues or contests called desafios or pelejas. In northwestern Brazil, ballad singers with guitars still square off against each other in competitions known as repentismo. The audience shouts out themes, and the singers respond by improvising verses in a range of complicated meters. The pregunta-respuesta was a form of poetic debate in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Castialian cancionero court poetry. One poet asks a question or a series of questions (the pregunta or requesta) and the other replies in matching form (the respuesta). There is verbal dueling in fifteenth-century Spanish plays. In these poetic contests known as echarse pullas, as J. P. Wickerhsam Crawford explained in 1915, “one person wished all sorts of misfortunes, for the most part obscene, upon another, who replied in a similar strain.” The golden age scholar Rodgrigo Caro called these contests darse grita, or “shouting at one another,” and traces Hispanic verbal dueling back to Horace, who in the Epistolae (Epistles, 2.1.145–146) speaks of the ritual, invented by the Fescennians, of hurling alternate verses at each other, opprobria rustica, or rustic taunts (Días geniales o lúdicos, ca. 1618). Crawford also describes among the Eskimos “a formal contest . . . which consists of heaping insulting terms upon each other until one of the contestants is exhausted.” There are both formal and informal models for poetry contests. The Chamoru natives of the Mariana Islands have an ancient style of improvised rhyming debate known as Kantan Chamorrita. In Greenland, song duels were used as a judicial weapon. The offender and the victim faced off in front of a group of spectators, who served as the court.

Hija, or the poetry of invective, was one of the main modes of classical Arabic verse. It was often brutally insulting and frequently obscene. Abū al- Faraj al-Isfahānī’s Kītab al-Aghānī (Book of Songs, tenth century), the most well-known compendia of medieval Arabic poetry, is filled with anecdotes of pre-Islamic and medieval poets dueling and debating, taking up challenges from their patrons, responding to rivals. There was a form of poetic contest in which one poet completed the lines of another to create a single poem (the mumālatah); there were duels in the rajaz meter (the murājazah) and duels in which poems shared the same rhyme and meter (mu’āradah); there were boasting competitions (the mufākharah); and there were tribal disputes worked out in a form of boasts and insults (the munāfarah). The Aghānī refers to the powerful poetry competitions at Sūq ‘Ukāz (the market of ‘Ukāz), where al-Nābighah al-Dhubyāni (ca. 535–ca. 604), one of the great court poets of Arabic literature, served as the first judge, and where the seventh-century female poet al-Kansā gained fame for her elegies for her brothers, who had died in battle, and dueled with the likes of Hind Bint ‘Atabah and Hassān Ibn Thābit. When al-Nābighah suggested that she was the best of poets with a uterus, she responded “and of those with testicles as well!”

There is evidence that the spontaneously composed verbal duel in colloquial Hispano-Arabic dates to the tenth century, which makes it the oldest extant poetry composed in the Hispano-Arabic dialect. In 1161, the poets of the Levantine flocked to Gibraltar for a poetic contest presided over by ‘Abd al-Mu’min to celebrate his conquest of al-Andalus. In Japan, in the years between 1087 and 1199, there were approximately 200 formal poetry competitions held in the imperial palace as well as in temples and shrines. Utaawase is the equivalent Japanese form of the poetry match. Poets were often assigned a theme or dai (“given subject”) for competitions. A danjo utaawase pitted men against women in a tanka contest. The topics were handed out well in advance for such major competitions as Roppyakuban Utawaase or “Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds” (1193) and the Sengohyakuban Utaawase or “Poetry Contest in 1,500 Rounds” (1201). The utaawise is a more gentle art than the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scottish flyting, which consisted of two bards excoriating each other and the chieftains with which they were associated. The word flyting derives from the Scots word for “scolding,” and indeed, verbal contests are called scolding in Scandinavia. The Scottish poet James Hogg made his reputation on a minstrel contest poem, The Queen’s Wake (1813), which dramatizes a contest of bards held before Mary, Queen of Scots on her arrival in Edinburgh. The poem, as Erik Simpson puts it, “splinters its minstrelsy into a din of competing voices.”

There is tremendous energy in the West Indian picong, a series of sustained taunts or insults, which originated as a verbal duel in song. It is still a spontaneous competitive art form in calypso festivals. So, too, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of Northwest China, competitive dialogue songs have long been popular, especially at Hua’er festivals. These competitions take place between two singers or two groups of people. There are singing contests in central Asia among the Kirghis and the Kazakhians, among the Telengites in southeastern Altai, where they are known as chenezh-kozhandar, among the Shor, among the Yakut of northern Siberia. E. Emsheimer points out that they are a traditional part of the wedding festivities among the Iranian mountain Tajik in the Pamir Mountains. Among the hill-dwelling peoples of Negal, such as the Tamangs, pairs of men and women duel each other in improvised duets. The risk is great, especially for women, since a woman who loses is sometimes offered in marriage to the victor. Oral poetry duels are still an integral part of rural Palestinian weddings in the Galilee. The individual poetic duel, or “wedding didong” (didong ngerjë), was once the dominant verbal performance form of the Gayo, who live in the mountainous central highlands of the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. These duels are still performed in the Terangon district of southern Gayoland. They have a strong element of formal oratory and involve two different virtuosi (céh) from different villages or units of villages. John R. Bowen points out that group poetic combats (didong klub) also emerged in the town of Takèngen in the late 1940s, which involved two teams, each consisting of ten to thirty men and boys, representing their respective villages and enacting a rivalry between two social domains. He writes that between 1900 and 1985, “Gayo poetic duels have shifted from a form that represents dominant sociopolitical relations as fixed and timeless to a form in which social combat, political control, and challenges to that control vie for a voice in the performance setting.” The poetic duel is a form of “social modeling.”

Improvised verbal confrontations are the center of bertzolaritza, oral Basque poetry. In the late nineteenth century, folk poets along the Texas-Mexico border competed to improvise ten-verse décimas, a tradition that is still alive in the Canary Islands. The payada—the term is Argentine—was a poetic contest of questions and answers among the gauchos, which was made famous in part two of José Fernandez’s Martin Fierro (1879). In Panama, poetic duels and competitions (duelos y porfias) continue to take place in formalized public settings. In Madagascar, hain-teny (“the knowledge of words”) is structured as a competitive verbal exchange between two “opponents” on the subject of love. The Chamula of Southern Mexico have a genre of verbal dueling they call “truly frivolous talk,” Gary Gossen points out, “a verbal game in which two players, typically adolescent males, exchange as few as two or as many as 250 verbal challenges.” Each opponent tries to marshal a maximum attack with a minimal shift in sound.

The African American verbal game of playing the dozens—an edgy contest of escalating insults—continues to thrive in American cities. The only successful slander and retaliation is a witty one. The poetry contest has been given a vital sociopolitical slant in contemporary American slam poetry, and there are now slam competitions in all fifty states. The beat goes on—fiery, social, engaged, competitive.

Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.